President's Top Terrorism Aid Calls Drone Killings "Legal," "Ethical," "Wise"
President Obama's senior anti-terrorism advisor, John Brennan, on Monday gave the administration's most detailed explanation of the policy and considerations behind using unmanned drones to target and kill terrorists abroad, saying the process was "legal," "ethical," and "conformed to the principle of necessity" and "proportionality," in a speech at a Washington, D.C. foreign policy think tank.
"In the course of the war in Afghanistan and the fight against al-Qq'ida, I think the American people expects to use advanced technologies, for example, to prevent attacks on U.S. forces and to remove terrorists from the battlefield," said Brennan, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. "We do and it has saved the lives of our men and women in uniform."
Brennan's speech comes as the Obama administration has come under attack from progressives for expanding the global fight on terrorism to U.S. shores by supporting numerous policies and signing legislation that have curtailed domestic civil rights and liberties, including creating extra-judicial procedures for arresting and detaining terrorism suspects as well as expanding the military's authority to operate domestically, including spying on American's Internet activities.
Brennan said the public--including foreign governments--have "the mistaken belief... that we engage in these strikes casually, as if we are simply unwilling to expose U.S. forces to the dangers faced every day by people in those regions."
The speech showed the administration's "continuing commitment to greater transparency," Brennan said. "With that in mind, I have made a sincere effort today to address some of the main questions that citizens and scholars have raised regarding the use of targeted lethal force against al-Qa'ida. I suspect there are those, perhaps some in this audience, who feel we have not been transparent enough. I suspect there are those--both inside and outside our government--who I have perhaps been too open. If both groups feel a little unsatisfied, then I've probably struck the right balance."
The speech is bound to provoke strong reactions. In essence, it further confirms that the Obama administration has adopted and institutionalized many of the anti-terror policies of the Bush Administration. Even though al-Qa'ida is "a shadow of what it once was" as Brennan said, and "we want this war against al-Qa'ida to be over as soon as possible," there should be no doubt that federal government does not envision stepping down from its wartime footing in the foreseeable future.
Brennan said the Obama administration was committed to "transparency," which was why he was publicly discussing the principles behind its counter-terrorism programs. First, he said the targeting and killing of terrorists beyond the battlefield in Afghanistan was done as a last resort, only when capture was not possible. He said Congress's authorization of military force after the 9/11 attacks was still in effect, and top lawyers at the Defense Department, Justice Department, State Department and CIA all agreed in lengthy opinions that "these targeted strikes are legal."
Going further, he said the targeted strikes--assassinations--were "ethical," because the targeted individuals were "legitimate military targets." He said the pilots controlling drones have and "unprecedented ability" to minimize collateral damage, meaning killing civilians. "It is hard to imagine a tool that can better minimize the risk to civilians than remotely piloted aircraft." And he said they were "wise," because "of geography, with the ability to fly hundreds of miles over the most treacherous terrain, strike their targets with astonishing precision, and then return to base."